Bone Marrow Transplantation: Evolution of a Cancer Cure - Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Treatment Research

Bone Marrow Transplantation: Evolution of a Cancer Cure

One Million Lives

have been touched by our pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation

Forty years (and counting) after pioneering bone marrow transplantation, Fred Hutch is expanding the technique to treat more diseases, help more people and save more lives.


Dr. Thomas pioneered bone marrow transplantation

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas

Dr. E. Donnall Thomas

Because of one life, millions were changed. Through persistence, determination and an overarching compassion for patients, Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and colleagues pioneered the successful use of bone marrow transplantation. The procedure replaces cancerous cells and stem cells damaged by chemotherapy and radiation with donated healthy cells that engraft within a patient’s bone marrow. The discovery was a cure for leukemia and other blood cancers, and earned Thomas the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Thomas and other Fred Hutch scientists would spend decades improving bone marrow transplantation to make the procedure safer and available to more patients. More than 1 million people have now received transplants around the globe, all of which trace back to the landmark work conducted at Fred Hutch.

Learn more about the story behind our pioneering development of bone marrow transplantation.

Blood stem cell transplantation is one the greatest success stories in cancer care.  Learn more about how it works with our step-by-step guide.

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Transplantation research advances

No other research center matches Fred Hutch’s historical and current contributions to the field of bone marrow transplantation. Our scientists are committed to making transplantation safer and more widely available, and their achievements speak for themselves:

  • Mini-transplants for older patients – Dr. Rainer Storb pioneered the use of minimal doses of radiation to reduce side effects for older transplant patients, a breakthrough we continue to refine so more patients can benefit from this therapy.

  • Pediatric transplantation – Our scientists, including Dr. Jean Sanders (retired), have contributed greatly to the field of pediatric transplantation, improving survival rates and also training dozens of pediatric oncologists.
  • Cord blood transplants – Dr. Colleen Delaney pioneered a method for rapidly growing the number of cord blood stem cells after they are recovered from donors. This breakthrough can greatly increase success and survival rates for cord blood transplant recipients. Cord blood cells, which don't require the strict genetic matching that adult blood stem cells do, are often a better match for patients who cannot easily find a tissue-matched bone marrow donor, such as some ethnic minorities. Learn more about Dr. Delaney's breakthroughs in cord blood transplantation.
  • Infection control – Our researchers, including Drs. Michael Boeckh and Larry Corey, have made numerous contributions to the clinical field of infection detection, prevention and control for transplant patients who have compromised immune systems.

  • Improving a cancer cure – A 2010 study conducted by a dozen Fred Hutch scientists showed that 200 days after transplantation, more patients were surviving than ever before thanks to a comprehensive series of breakthroughs aimed at reducing the risk of deadly complications.

In 2017, the Fred Hutch Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance was recognized by the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research as one of 13 centers in the U.S. that exceeded expectations for one-year survival rates for patients receiving blood stem cell transplants from healthy donors. Our program was one of only six to have exceeded expectations for at least five years in a row.

Transplantation is on the verge of saving more lives

Today, transplantation is used to treat dozens of diseases, including autoimmune disorders, sickle cell anemia, myelodysplasia syndromes, and inherited immune-system and metabolic disorders. As transplantation becomes a more widely used option for patients worldwide, broader challenges are being addressed. Some transplant patients, especially ethnic minorities, have significant difficulties finding matched donors. In addition, cancer relapse is an ongoing threat, and doctors cannot yet accurately predict which patients may suffer from a serious complication known as graft-vs.-host disease. Our scientists are pursuing innovative research to address these challenges:

Dr. Effie Petersdorf

Reducing the risk of graft-vs.-host disease — Dr. Effie Petersdorf is looking for genetic clues as to why transplanted stem cells may attack patients' healthy tissues. This complication, known as graft-vs.-host disease (GVHD), is a serious risk for transplant patients. Understanding GVHD's molecular basis enables researchers to develop strategies to reduce the risk of it occurring, including through better donor-patient matching, adjusting what cells and medicines the patient — or even the donor — receives as part of the transplant, as well as other approaches.

Dr. Jerry Radich

Predicting relapse and treatment outcomes — Dr. Jerry Radich is researching a “precision-medicine” approach by understanding the genetic features of each patient's own cancer, which can vary greatly across individuals. This approach may help predict if or when leukemias and other cancers will return, as well as the likelihood of success of different therapeutic options.

Dr. George Georges

New applications for transplantation — Dr. George Georges and other Hutch researchers continue to extend transplantation as a therapeutic option for more patients, including those with disease other than blood cancers such as autoimmune disorders like scleroderma and advanced Crohn’s disease. Fred Hutch scientists are also extending the principles of transplantation to explore potential cures for HIV and other diseases.

Immunotherapy: Transplantation’s legacy

"One of the major legacies of bone marrow transplantation will be the establishment of immunotherapy as a technique that will be able to cure thousands of patients of many different diseases in the future." — Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Deputy Director and Executive Vice President

Bone marrow transplantation provided the first definitive and reproducible example of the immune system's power to cure cancer.  Hutch researchers continue to lead the way in harnessing this power to treat patients with a wide variety of cancers and other diseases.

Known as immunotherapy, this rapidly advancing field is the next frontier in cancer care.  Learn more about our immunotherapy research.